Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Testament Project at Bryn Mawr College

"Jessica" by Kris Graves
Kris Graves' The Testament Project, currently on view at Bryn Mawr College, is a powerful engagement of the visual and emotional senses.

The artist presents carefully constructed photographs of Black people larger than life and sublimely doused in bright color. They are images of Black faces, some steadily holding the viewer's gaze, some looking beyond the reach of the camera. To a vision? To a dream deferred? The mystery is part of what is so affecting about this exhibit.

The colors confront the viewer's assumptions of what people of color are, what they look like, and how they negotiate the space they inhabit. The artist makes clear that his subjects collaborated with him on how they were presented in the portraits, lending an element of control that disrupts the traditional imbalanced relationship between the viewer and the object being viewed.

The Testament Project is installed in the Canaday Library's Rare Book Room, where Black faces keep sentinel over dusty medieval books, the canon of an ensconced tradition of White-conceived "humanities." The faces demand to know: "Who controls education? Who controls the values of our society? Who is allowed to be in here?"

They ask the nearby portrait of M. Carey Thomas, a revered administrator of Bryn Mawr College from 1894 to 1922, and a (reputedly) queer suffragist who opposed marriage on the principle that it led to loss of freedom for women. She also steadfastly refused admission to women of color into the school. "Who belongs here?" the faces ask, intently. "Who gets to read these books, write more books, be the faces of advancement and the future?" The faces - powerfully - insist on engagement on their own terms. "Here we are," they say. "We are exactly who we are."

By hosting such an exhibition, College invites the confrontation of these questions. It is an especially timely invitation, given several on-campus racial conflicts in recent years. The artist's wish to "create a space that is participatory and empowered" is possible here. We would be collectively improved to pursue it.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 years

Today I've got some 9/11 trauma, remembering how everything was violent and uncertain and scary, and not being able to get home from school, and the phones not working, and not knowing whose parents died or just happened to have missed the train that morning, and if we'd ever know what happened or why, and who was this Al Qaeda anyway, and how we watched the videos again and again and again and the people jumping and the people running and the people covered with dust, and the firefighters bravely running towards the fire and the melting and the smells and the horror and the smoke clouds you could see for weeks and weeks, and that store with all the jeans neatly folded and covered with ash, and then....and then.... and then there were backpack checks on the subway and bombsniffing scary dogs and war and fear and the triage center at Stuyvesant High School and everyone wearing American flag this-and-that, and what would happen, people bursting into tears on the street and strangers comforting them, and what do we do...and then...and then...and then there was still war and the phantom lights every year, with the names of the dead read by their children, now grown, who were just babies at the time, and also that man who cried for his father the window-washer on national TV who I will never forget, and all those signs for the missing: "Have you seen my ___ ?????" Oh my G-d it was awful.

Now the war has receded to the back rooms of humdrum dronekiller video game players, bombing people far away who had nothing to do with all that, and there's also war every day in the minds and bodies of people who are there or were there or might be getting ready to go there, and the "there" keeps changing, and the "why" seems irrelevant, and what are we building, and what are we tearing down - these are questions nobody answers with any degree of trustworthiness.

There was potential for positive social and political change. There was a tide of global sympathy and love. Now there is war and death and killing and burning and more violence, more extraordinary than before.

Now we wonder why people kill people in nightclubs, or beat their wives, or swear allegiance to a credo of killing and kidnapping and bombing yourself. We wonder why people rip headscarves off women's heads, using the rhetoric of "freedom" and "choice." We wonder why professional athletes don't stand for the American flag anthem. We wonder why our veterans are not getting good or even adequate care in hospitals supposedly built for them. We wonder why we have homelessness, drug addiction, crappy schools with reactionary and corporatist ideologues running them, scourges of disease and poverty, and people not being able to take care of themselves.

Today is a hard day, every year. But it is also people's birthdays and wedding days and time-to-study-for-a-test days. We are rooted in violence, but we don't have to be. We can take our memories and our traumas and fears, and we can acknowledge them, learn from them, and grow. We can be healers and collaborators, and problem resolvers. We can teach children what happened that day, and ask them to invent ideas for making things right. We can build our own future, and it can be better than what we have now.

...In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name...

- "The Names," by Billy Collins

...This is the music space
where music is most difficult
this place of joy and horror
....I think the music of the spheres
can be heard in this space...

- "A Little Ramshackle Shack," by Abdal-Hayy